Victoria Day Thoughts (a bit early)

Victoria Diamond Jubilee Medallion Obverse Victoria Diamond Jubilee Medallion Reverse
Enlarged pictures of a medallion approximately the size of a loonie

To celebrate the arrival of Victoria Day in a few days’ time, I decided to photograph a medallion I purchased some years ago for less than $10, if I remember correctly. As was common at the time, one side has a convex surface, while the other shows a concave one. This medallion, which commemorates Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, or 60th regnal anniversary, exhibits a bust carved in very high relief, and features English, rather than Latin, inscriptions. The presence of English is not noteworthy on these kinds of medallions, which reflected popular feelings, as they were often given as gifts or keepsakes to children. This medallion, while very dirty, is still in excellent shape in terms of wear–a coin from that era in the same condition would fetch a small fortune rather than $10. (As a numismatic aside, this is just another reason to collect medallions if one is on a budget–they’re carved in higher relief, are less worn, and are an exponential fraction of the price.)

Victoria’s title “Empress of India” (a Latin version of which may be seen on older Canadian coins) has an echo on the obverse (heads side), where you can read the word “Empress” on the crown. The reverse (tails side) features a fascinating alliterative inscription: “60 years peace, purity, prosperity and power in Canada.” In terms of Victoria’s reign, one “p” that I think could also be mentioned is “progress,” as what would become known as Canada went from being a handful of poor colonies to a sovereign nation under the Crown.

The medallion’s characteristics are certainly not politically-correct, and partially for that reason it is of more interest to me. At the same time, it’s worth remembering, as a refugee friend of mine from India pointed out some years ago, that India was greatly improved under the British, even if many injustices were committed along the way. Similarly, one might correctly feel regret over the tragedies that were to befall the First Nations people in Canada as a consequence of the migration and invasion of the White Man, even if worse was committed by the anti-monarchists south of the border. Again, though, it should be pointed out that the worst injustices, such as the residential school system and the banning of the potlatch, occurred not because of the queen in London, but because of the prejudices of the people and politicians in western Canada and Ottawa.

No nation’s history is without reproach, but Canada, like its colonial sisters Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, St. Kitts, and many others, enjoys a measure of peace and prosperity that is largely the legacy of British colonial rule. In remembering the past, celebration of the positive is as much required as criticism of those things which we wish had not happened. Happy Victoria Day!

St. George’s Day (Belated)

Bank of Upper Canada token with Saint George and the dragon design
“St. George and the dragon” design on a Canadian bank token

Yesterday I was busy with one thing and another, and wasn’t able to commemorate St. George’s Day here, although I’m pleased to see that–not surprisingly–Taylor & Company did.

Today’s commemorative picture shows a token, minted by the Bank of Upper Canada and dated to 1857. Prior to the Province of Canada, as it was then called, issuing with royal assent the first cents, tokens were ubiquitous in financial transactions in what is now eastern Canada. In some cases, the colonies minted what are called “semi-regal” coins: coins secretly ordered and minted with the approval of the local colonial authorities, but without the approval of the British Colonial Office. In other cases, the banks, or even merchants, themselves minted coins, called tokens; this was often done with the approval of the colonial legislatures. This action was necessary because the net flow of money was always out of the colonies, as the colonists had to buy finished goods from England.

The Bank of Upper Canada tokens are among the most common of all tokens, partly because so many were minted just prior to the officially-issued cents of the Province of Canada only the next year. The design on the obverse side here is a familiar one–the type is older than history (compare the iconography of Gilgamesh on cylinder seals, Baal, Yahweh, Heracles, etc.) while this precise design goes back to Benedetto Pistrucci’s 1816 work for the Royal Mint in London.

2007 Numismatic Trivia Question

I just received my first 2007 coin as change the other day.

From the Canadian Numismatic Association journal (vol. 51.3, p. 140): “Throughout history, which person, during his (or her) lifetime, appeared for the longest time on the currency of a given nation? Key words to the solution are lifetime and currency (not medals).” The answer, according ot the CNA: Queen Elizabeth II on Canadian currency. This year she surpasses King Louis XIV of France–whose image appeared on French currency during his lifetime for 73 years–by virtue of her appearance on the 1935 Bank of Canada twenty dollar bill–long before she became queen.

A Visit to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, BC

Thunderbird Park
Thunderbird Park at the Royal British Columbia Museum

Victoria is my favourite city in the province because it is also one of the most historical places in the province. At Victoria the heritage of colonial England meets with the heritage of the First Nations peoples, and the result is always either charming or spectacular. In the latter category would be the First Nations and the heritage galleries on the third floor of the Royal British Columbia Museum. This was only my second visit to the museum, and my first as an adult. The museum has a very generous photography policy: photography is permitted anywhere except in the First Nations gallery on the third floor. The image above shows what is known as Thunderbird Park, just in front of the museum complex.

If at Victoria we can see the heritage of two peoples coming together, this is even more so at the museum. In the museum, there was one special artefact that I was delighted to find: the totem pole used on the reverse of the commemorative 1958 silver dollar, a focal point for my interests in Canadian intercultural history and numismatics. (For an interesting read on that dollar, see the Canadian Numismatic Association‘s journal 2004 vol. 49.3 “Canada’s Death Dollar.”) The totem pole, which was housed in a glass case adjacent to the bookshop and not on the third floor, is shown below, with an accompanying description on the sign, and an early photograph that was used as the basis for the coin design. Please click on the thumbnails to enlarge the photographs.

House Post Number 2 Sign for House Post Number 2 Early Photograph of House Post Number 2

The commemorative coin, shown below, was designed by a Hungarian immigrant named Stephen Trenka. Its purpose was to commemorate the consequences of the 1858 gold rush, when a sharp influx of gold miners, many of them Americans from California, prompted the British government to assert sovereignty by formally designating the mainland the “Crown Colony of British Columbia.” This happened in 1858, and the colony merged with the colony of Vancouver Island in 1866. It must be a uniquely Canadian irony that the commemoration of a British government act in response to an onslaught of American migrant workers would be designed by a Hungarian immigrant using an already-historical photograph of a beautiful First Nations design that had nothing to do with the gold rush itself!

1958 Commemorative Dollar

The gold rush, as I learned at the museum, was instrumental in the development of the province. I think it also accounts for BC’s reputation as the “most Americanized province in Canada.” During the 19th century there were literally thousands of American workers in the area, so this cultural tidbit should not really be surprising.

The next few photographs show what was my favorite part of the museum, the gold rush exhibit (which was also where the MacDonald Bank money issues photographed in a previous post were located). The first shows the scales of Billy Barker, after whom Barkerville was named. Billy Barker died penniless in Victoria. The second picture shows a miner’s certificate, while the third shows some of the other exhibits associated with the goldrush days.

Scales of Billy Barker Miner's Certificate Goldrush exhibit

The final picture shows one of the more famous parts of the museum, the old-style film theatre where one can see literally hours of Charlie Chaplin.

Movie theatre

The museum overall is well-worth the pricey entrance fee of $14, and I would love to go again. While I thought I detected an undesirable anti-British bias in the heritage gallery’s sign display, it was mollifying to see copies of newspaper clippings showing how various Canadian governments had tried to wipe out the potlach, for example. People were actually arrested and sentenced for having potlaches, or for taking part in them. The museum is an appropriate place for that kind of display, and such history should not go unforgotten. At the same time, as the city of Victoria shows, there is much to be proud of from our British heritage, too. All in all, the museum remains a fascinating place where one can learn much about British Columbian history.